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Yarnell dregs up memories of firefighters lost in 1976

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -

It's been six weeks since 19-firefighters were killed battling the Yarnell Hill Fire. It's the deadliest wildfire in state history. But it's not the first time Arizona hotshots were killed fighting a fire.

In 1976, three Arizona hotshots lost their lives battling a wildfire in Colorado. After their deaths, we saw big safety changes

We talked to one of the survivors 37 years later.

"We were called to the battlement fire," says John Casciani, former Mormon Lake hotshot. "They took us right up to the top of the ridge."

"Tony Czak has asked me to be one of guys doing the back burn. I said great, when you do back burns that like the easiest job, that's like a day off because the other guys are fight, digging lines. But he came up to me and said John, Scotty is the rookie. He'd really love to do the back burn today and I said yeah sure I've done it many times let Scotty do it, and you know… and here I am."

Had John Casciani worked on that back burn, he wouldn't be here today. He'd be one of the three Mormon Lake hotshots killed in the Battlement Creek Fire.

"Maybe they got disorientated, maybe they didn't know where they old burn was located and that's where they were left."

In 1976 Flagstaff's Mormon Lake hotshots were called out to help fight a massive wildfire in Colorado.

Casciani and the other Mormon Lake hotshots were dropped off on top of a ridge. They split into two groups -- one group worked on a fire line, the other small group worked on a back burn. That's when the wind kicked up.

"We heard a call on the radio to get out of there because the fire was out of control at that time --and it was coming toward us."

Another back burn that started at the bottom on the ridge grew out of control, moving fast -- the Mormon lake hotshots digging the fire line barely had time to make it to their safe zone. Their 4-man burn out squad, who had climbed further down the ridge, were trapped and overcome by the fire.

"We just waited we didn't know what to do. About an hour later that's when we got a call."

Lake Mormon hotshot John Gibson was severely burned. Scott Nelson, Stephen Fury and crew boss Tony Czak were dead.

"I was an usher at his wedding, six months later I was his pallbearer."

37 years after the fire and you can still see the pain in John Casciani's eyes.

"I can hear their voices, I know what made them mad I know what made them laugh and I… just if I have a question I know what the answer would be."

And the hotshots' memory lives on in the changes made after their deaths. A federal investigation and a final report into what went wrong.

"Every time there's a fatality, for the better of the order, we try to determine why it happened and how to prevent it from reoccurring. The Battlement Mesa Fire was one of the things that made it a requirement to carry a fire shelter with you," says Buck Wickham, former USDA fire management officer.

Buck Wickham just retired from the forest service after 41 years. He was a hotshot and he knew the Mormon Lake hotshots who died in ‘76.

"The old timers that were telling us it was a hazardous job and preaching safety day in day out, it really hit home because I knew these guys," says Wickham.

After Battlement Creek, wildland firefighters were required to carry fire shelters with them at all times. They also now have to wear flame resistant clothing.

The Forest Service improved communication between crews fighting fires. But 37 years later, another tragedy involving Arizona hotshots.

The Yarnell Hill tragedy brings back memories.

"Those fuels were a lot like those fuels that we fought at the Battlement Creek Fire," says Casciani. "I just thought to myself those guys were very courageous to go into that kind of shrub and fight that fire."

Casciani and Wickham both agree changes will be made after the Yarnell Hill tragedy -- other hotshots will learn from what happened, learn how to be safer.

"It's a very dangerous situation it's a dynamic situation were in really tough tough country," says Wickham.

Their memory will live on -- some good will come from their deaths.

"I have a lot of respect for those men, they're amazing when I think about what they did," says Casciani.

"We can't forget those guys they gave their life for our cause and we need to treat them and their families with the dignity and respect they deserve," says Wickham.

We asked the former Mormon Lake hotshots if they'd reached out to the families of the Granite Mountain hotshots. They said they haven't because they know how important privacy is during such a difficult time.

Photos courtesy: Gary Olson
www.ourfiregods.com

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